Beijing!

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So, as most hard-core backpackers, I settled down in an infamous but cheap hotel in the South of downtown Beijing. During the four weeks I stayed there I met countless students and tourists that I had met all around Chine in the past year. I was very happy to meet the Swiss-Israeli couple again, with whom I had shared so much time in Xinjiang and Tibet.

I went to see „the sights“. I went souvenir and book shopping on Liulichang. I enjoyed Northern Chinese food. Beijing is so different from Shanghai, as all the major historic sites are here.

Unfortunately, I got into a rain shower, and my camera was soaked, so I lost most of the pictures I took in Beijing. This is what is left:

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Wrapping Up in Shanghai

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After returning to Shanghai the semester was over. I had to plan my trip back home, pack up my new and existing possessions, and, at some point, leave!

I remember packing at least eight heavy packages of books, bringing them to the International Post Office in central Shanghai, and shipping to my parents‘ address. They all arrived before me, by the way.

So I decided to take the Transmongolian Railway instead of flying: Beijing – Ulan Bator – Moskow, and from there on to Berlin (East), crossing over to Berlin (West), and then to my parents in South-West Germany.

There was a kind of „graduation ceremony“ from the uni, and I was reprimanded before for not attending classes, but got the „graduation certificate“ any way.

From the entries in my diary I can see that these last days and weeks in Shanghai were quite melancholic: The feeling that something „big“ was over!

I made random trips to downtown Shanghai to take some „last pictures“ of the place that had become so familiar.

The Wang family got my bicycle. And then I packed the backpack I had arrived with 10 months earlier, and took a train to Beijing…

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Being ill during the Great Hepatitis Epidemic of 1988

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When I got back to Shanghai after the winter break there was a huge hepatitis epidemic going on at that time, with reportedly more than 300,000 cases. The embassies organized inoculations for their citizens – I still have the vaccine instruction leaflet.

One morning I woke up with a piercing pain in my right ear. It was getting worse – not better. So I had to go to the hospital, at a time when everyone was advised to keep away from others as much as possible. Especially from where sick people were. Two fellow students went with me – I wouldn’t have made it alone. I was diagnosed with otitis media, and got antibiotics and a hydrogen peroxide solution for my ear.

It took more than two weeks until I felt better and could join classes again.

As to the classes: After the initial assessment I had been placed in the highest language course, which I somehow passed. This meant that for the second semester there were no more language courses for me, and I was allowed to go to a couple of lectures at the computer science department on the Chinese campus. I joined a programming lecture, and another one about AI. According to my diary I must have enjoyed the programming course – until I couldn’t go anymore, as a result of my sickness. The other course was a disaster though: The professor spoke a dialect. I didn’t understand a word.

And so the second semester dragged on.

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Yunnan: Kunming and Dali

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I managed to get a train ticket in Guilin. The train, comimg from Eastern China, was delayed for more that five hours, and we had to spend half the night in a windy, cold waiting room at the railway station.

Kunming is called The City of Eternal Spring. It is far in the South of China, but very high, and therefore it is about 20 °C there all year round. I do not remember much. I took a bus to Dali on the Erhai lake.

Happy, warm and sunny days, after Guilin in the rain!

But it was time to carry on: Chongqing on the Changjiang (Yangzi river) was my next destination. I planned to take a boat from there, all the way down the river, back to Shanghai.

New Year Preparations in Kunming

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Guilin and Yangshuo

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The weather in Guilin was miserable! It was raining all the time, I remember well the slobbery, sludgy dirt roads and the water puddles. My shoes and socks and pants were soaked with mud. I was wet and miserable all the time.

I took the bus to Yangshuo the next day. Yangshuo was not the smug tourist destination in 1988 that it is now, instead it was a backpackers‘ paradise, with inexpensive rooms, dorm rooms, cafés and restaurants catering for the backpacking tourists who traveled the galaxy for less than ten Altair dollars a day. In January, it was wet and miserable there, anyway…

Of course, I rented a bike to see the famous Moon Hill, with a crescent-shaped hole in its peak.

An Anecdote

I am not sure whether it was on this trip to the Moon Hill, to be honest, as I went back two or three more times in the coming decades. Anyway: On top of the Moon hill was an old farmer lady, selling bags of mandarin oranges for the outrageous price of 6 kuai to tourists. I told her in Chinese that that was waaaay too expensive, but she told me that she was buying them on the market for 5 kuai, and she had to make some money as well. She was able to sell quite a lot of her produce, nevertheless.
I planned to stay until sunset to take some pictures, and soon the old lady and I were alone on the mountain. She liked the fact that for once she could communicate with a gao bizi, a foreigner, and so we chatted a bit. Then she offered me to sell me a bag of Juzi for one kuai, instead of six, which was ok. We chatted on for a bit, and when she left, she confesed to me that the Juzi grew on the tree in her garden, so she didn’t pay for them at all in the first place.

I was a bit nervous on how to get out of Guilin, and on to my next destination, as pre-ordering train tickets was not possible at that time, and I didn’t want to spend a couple of nights in an unheated „hard seater“ category train coach with live chicken and sacks of rice. So I returned to Guilin the next day.

The famous Elefant Trunk in Guilin
I suppose this is a dog being prepared for eating

My next destination: Kunming in Yunnan province, also known as „The City of Eternal Spring“.

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Yichun

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So I boarded a train from Shanghai to Yichun in Jiangyxi province. Yichun, with a population of several hundred thousand, would have been a major city in Europe but was hard to find on a China map. And my treasured „Lonely Planet“ travel guide didn’t mention it at all. I was told that I was the first European there, and with my dark blond beard and hair I must have been quite a sight!

I was warmly welcomed by the family and could even stay in their home for the days I spent there.

Here are some impressions:

The four-year-old son of Mr Yan called da huzi de shuhu – the uncle with the big beard. And his cousin – she was about the same age – was totally crazy about me.

Mr Yan knew that my father worked on the restoration of historic water mills in South-West Germany, and therefore organized a trip to a Chinese mill, an oil mill, actually.

Afterwards we went to a place with hot springs, where I was able to take a real bath for a long time. The naturally hot water was also used for washing clothes in a cammunal washing house.

After a few days I left Yichun for my next destination: Guilin and Yangshuo – the famous hills on the Li river.

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Winter Break!

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Chinese Universities have a winter break around the Chinese New Year, from mid-January to mid-February. All the foreign students took the opportunity to travel and see as much of the country as possible in these two weeks. So did I.

I chose the South-West for two reasons: I had an invitation from a painter in the city Yichun in Jiangxi province – another travel acquaintance of my father’s, years ago. Also, I wrongly assumed that in winter the South would be warm. It was not. And while the cold North had heating, the south did not. Never in my life was I so cold! Also, except for Yunnan, the weather was abysmally rainy, and it shows on my pictures.

As a result, probably, I got an infection of the middle ear upon arrival back in Shanghai, which kept me painfully busy for several weeks.

Several entries about the different places I went to will follow.

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The Fudan Foreign Students Campus

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After the arrival the new students settled down in the foreign students‘ compound.

It was located outside the university campus, had its own wall around it, and there was a gate with a guard, that was closed at 11 p.m. There was still a guard inside, but if you arrived past 11, you were reported and reprimanded. On the map above it is the walled compound in the top-right corner.

I can remember language class placement tests and an official welcome event, with the head of Fudan University attending and welcoming the new foreign students.

Also, we were assigned our final room and roommate. I happened to share a room with a Japanese student – Takabatake-san.

View from my room’s window to the middle school on the other side of the road

This is what the campus looked like:

My room was on the top floor (5th floor – China counts floors the same way as Americans) in the building right from the gate.

Later during the school year an artificial mountain was added in the rubble field you can see on the pictures. The gabled building in the background was the canteen, with an activity room on the top floor which offered, among other things, a table tennis table, board games, and a piano.

Here you can see the lunch tickets for the foreign students‘ canteen and the regular canteen on the campus.

The main university campus was already decorated for National Day on October 1st:

The Chinese students‘ dormitories look beautiful and romantic from the outside. But they had big eight-bed room dormitories with bunk beds. So our two-bed rooms were actually quite a luxury.

An Anecdote

While I was there we experienced a heat wave. Many of the dorm dwellers gathered for the Chinese evening news in front of the color TV in the dorm lobby every night. And as it got hotter by the day we watched the weather forecast for the next day going up from 37 °C to 38 to 39 to 39,5… And that’s where it stayed for the next few days. We were wondering… Until a second year student explained: There obviously was a law stating that workers could stay home when the temperature rose to 40 degrees and above. So, magically, it never did! Can anyone confirm or debunk this?

We were about 400 foreign students at our compound at Fudan from literally all around the world: 200 Japanese students, a lot of Americans, Germans being the second largest group, including three form the soon-to-be disappearing GDR – who would have thought, just two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall?! – Australians, French, British, Belgian, Italian, … as well as a couple of Africans, I think from Benin, two Russians and even two North-Koreans.

After a couple of weeks everyone was fraternizing, except for the North Koreans. The Japanese were mostly keeping to themselves. But as I was placed in the highest language class with the students from the GDR and Russia, and had a Japanese tongwu I was on good terms with them all.

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A Railway Trip from China to Germany in 1988

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From September 1987 to August 1988 I was living in China as a foreign student, learning the language at Fudan University in Shanghai, and traveling the country.

When the time came to return to Germany I decided to make the geographic and cultural transition from East to West a little bit smoother by taking the Transmongolian Railway, from Beijing, via Ulan Bator in Mongolia, to Moscow, and from there further on to Berlin (East), and back to my home near Stuttgart in the South-West of Germany.

I bought my „Beijing – Moscow – Berlin“ ticket several weeks before the trip, at the Foreign Travel Agency in Shanghai. It cost me 892.30 Chinese Yuan, which was, at that time, about 450 German Marks. So, besides going on an adventure, it was also a lot cheaper than a plane ticket to Europe.

ticket_aussenticket_innen

Below you can find my travel diary entries – translated from German –  from this long railway trip.

Please consider that this trip took place just a little more than one year before the Berlin Wall came down, an event nobody even dared to dream of at that point in time!

See also:

Traveling in Tibet in 1988

Traveling in Xinjiang in 1988


August 10, 1988, close to Erlian, at the Chinese-Mongolian Border

I almost overslept this morning, as I did not hear my alarm clock, but I woke up at 5:30 anyway. Last night a string on my guitar broke, and of course I did not have a replacement with me, so I tried to fix the broken string somehow… Then it seemed like our taxi [from the hotel to the railway station in Beijing] would not show up. It arrived eventually.

The [Chinese operated] train is quite comfortable, actually. The compartments correspond to the so called „soft sleeper“ class on domestic Chinese railway. I am sharing my compartment with a Chinese „German Studies“ student, who is on the way to Bochum University, a Chinese woman on the way to Budapest, and Hungarian guy who seems to be able speak just any language of the world…

Unfortunately, the film roll got stuck in my camera, so, in the worst case scenario, all my pictures taken in Beijing will be lost.

At some point on the way, we could see the Great Wall. Now we ride past endless steppes, green and flat as a pancake, and I just saw a herd of camels grazing.

Anja and Claudia, Anita and Adrian [tourist I got to know during my four week stay in Beijing] are on the same train carriage.

OH – I ALMOST FORGOT: GOOD-BYE, CHINA! SEE YOU AGAIN!


August 11, 1988

Contrary to all the horror stories I have heard [about the Mongolian border control] everything went smoothly at the Mongolian border. They collected all our passports, and we had to fill in a customs form, which they didn’t even bother to collect afterwards. They only took a short glance into our compartment, actually.

Last night I slept like a log. We are now (13:00 h) approaching [the Mongolian capital] Ulan Bator. Outside, I can see horses, yurts, camels, grassland, and many Mongols, as well as Russians. Also, it is quite cool outside, compared to Beijing. I am afraid I may not have brought enough warm clothing for the trip.

The Mongolian officers once again did not give us any trouble when we were leaving the country. One officer, however, studied the Chinese movie magazine our Chinese companion had brought very thoroughly, page by page… Finally, he found a color photograph of an actor kissing an actress, which he studied for a long time, with his emotions undisclosed to the outside word.

The Russians in Naushki were much more thorough, though. They were scrutinizing the train for hidden persons. It took ages until out passports were returned, so we could leave the train. I was the one before last at the queue in front of the bank, where I changed US$ 20 into rubles, I got 12 rubles and some kopecks. We were told that the black market value in Moskow was six rubles for one dollar, though. Well, we can make the ruble can roll now [A German idiom for „good business“] … And our the train, finally, rolls again, as well.

[Note: At the Mongolian-Russian border, and later again, at the Russian-Polish border, the complete undercarriage of all train carriages must be replaced, as Russia has wider railway tracks as the rest of the world.]

By the way, this afternoon I tought Adrian, Anita and a Danish woman the rules of Majiang, and we played several rounds in the dining car.


August 12, 1988

Siberia in Summer! Lake Baykal, with boats, wooden houses and huts, birch and fir trees everywhere, meadows with flowers and the fantastic summer weather you always long for, but rarely get! Exactly the right temperature, outside, neither too warm, nor too cool.

trans01trans02trans03

And then the old babushkas with headscarfs, standing at the railway stations where we stop every few hours, selling carrots, garlic, radishes, strawberries, black currant, etc. from prams.

trans04

So, I am standing on the platform at the Irkutsk railway station, just as if were the normal thing to do. On the train there are lots of Russians who try to sell rubles for foreign currency.

schoko

Chocolate Wrapper

Dinner in the dining car: Cheese, butter and bread. Borscht, beef stroganoff. Very small portions, but delicious and inexpensive.

After we passed Irkutsk the landscape outside became livelier: More rail traffic, more settlements. Alltogether, traveling on the Transsiberian [Transmongolian, actually] is quite comfortable!

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Novosibirsk Railway Station

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August 13, 1988

Coffee, reading, listening to music, playing cards, trips to the dining car, short breaks on some railway platforms. I spend a lot of time in Adrian and Anja’s compartment, and visit Claudia an Anja from time to time, as my compartment is just too crowded. [The Chinese travelers had a  lot of baggage!]

fahrplan

Obviously, I had enough spare time to copy the complete train schedule

I have had two very good meals in the dining car restaurant today, and we jogged to the railway building at the stop in Beljabinsk. Then we had a nice and comfy evening, playing majiang with Adrian, Jim and Tina. The time difference slowly becomes noticable, and the Moskow time we have set our watches to is somewhat irritating.


August 14, 1988

Some Chinese passengers started making a lot of noise at a quarter to six this morning, so I got up at 6 and had breakfast. The first stop for today was Sverdlovsk in the Ural. There, on the platform, some young Russians wanted to buy my walkman…

A bit later, at the kilometer stone 1777 (measured from Moskow), there was a memorial stone, marking the official geographic border between Asia and Europe. So it seems we are almost back home, right?

trans09The Milestone

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August 15, 1988

The morning started with „the big catlick“, and a breakfast, consisting of a cup of coffee and a bar of chocolate. Now it is time to pack my stuff again.

Later, we filled our bellies in the Russian dining car for a last time.

In Moskow we took the metro from the Jaroslav railway station to the Beloruskaya railway station. There was an enormos queue of mostly German-Russians who wanted to buy tickets to Berlin. [Under Gorbachev’s perestroika, people with German ancestors were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Germany, and at the end of the 1980s, there were hundreds of thousands who did.] It may be hard to get a ticket! So, we won’t be able to see the Red Square!

pepsifanta1988 „Pepsi“ and „Fanta“

5:30 p.m.: Still sitting at the railway station, waiting for a reservation for tonight. They are now collecting our tickets, passports, and visa. Let’s hope it will all work out!

伟大的社会​主义! [Oh, Great Socialism!] Of course there is no more train today! We were told that thirty of us can take a train tomorrow at noon, further seven persons will have to take the midnight train.

So, I left my guitar and backpack at the luggage checkroom. Then we – Wolfgang, Monika and I – took the metro to „Prospect Marksa“, where, by chance, we met the Swiss family we know from the train. We went to the Red Square together. I tried to take a photo of the Basileus cathedral at sunset.

trans11 trans12

As it was getting dark quickly and it started to rain, we went back to the railway station. When we left the metro at Belorusskaya, a Russian woman asked us whether she could help us, as we looked quite puzzled, obviously. She showed us the way out and brought us to the railway station restaurant, where we had dinner. Nadja was her name, and she told us she was an editor for a newspaper in Leningrad. We talked about old Russian architecture, Gorbatchev, Reagan, Glasnost, traveling, freedom of the press, etc.pp.

And now we are staying over night in the waiting room of Belorusskaya station.

TRANSIT!


August 16, 1988

I survived the night in relative comfort, as the waiting room was heated, and I was able to lie on the corner of a sleeping bag that someone hat put on the floor.

At 5:30 I took a walk in the surroundings of the railway station. At 8:00 our passports were, once again, collected. I really hope it will work out with the train at noon!

9:45: Happy news – not! Not 30, but only 10 people will be able to take the train at noon! The others may be able to leave at midnight. Those ten lucky people got their tickets after some time, and left Moscow.

Then at 1 p.m. suddenly a big surprise: The door to the reservation office opened, and we all got our passports and reservations! Our train will leave at ten past midnight!

mosk_blnSo we brought our baggage to the baggage check, again, and took the metro to the Red Square, which we found in perfect, bright sunshine. Then we went to the Kremlin, visiting some churches and museums there. Afterwards, we went to the GUM shopping center. Well – if this is the best Russia has to offer… [Indeed, I was shocked. As a result of China’s economic reforms, even small town shops in Tibet had more diverse goods on offer than the GUM in Moscow. Seriously!]

trans13 trans14 trans15 trans16 trans17 trans18 trans19 trans20

Back at the railway station we had dinner at the PECTOPAH.

At 11:45 we went onto the train with all our luggage, and left Moscow.

rubel

One Ruble


August 17, 1988

A catlick on the train. Breakfast: Coffee and chocolate, again. We arrived at Brest at 12:30, where I changed my remaining eleven rubles back to 30 German Marks (West). Suddenly, everybody seemed to start buying whatever they could find, to get rid of their remaining rubles. [The point here was that you could only change back the maximum amount that you had changed when you entered the country. So, everyone who changed rubles for the fantastic black market exchange rate was now stuck with a lot of Russian currency, and virtually nothing to buy for it.]

Then, we had some trouble finding the platform from which the train would depart. Once again, all the undercarriages had to be exchanged to fit the standard gauge Polish railway tracks. There was practically no border control, except for a passport inspection.

Now, at 4 p.m., we are rolling into Poland.


August 18, 1988

Arrival at the Polish/GDR border at 3:20 in the morning. The Polish and East German border and customs officers did a joint control.

We arrived at Berlin (Ost) – Lichtenfelde at 6:00 in the morning. I took the S-Bahn to Friedrichstraße and passed the border station [The border crossing Friedrichsstrasse was known as „Tränenpalast“, the „palace of tears“, as East Germans could not cross, with very few exceptions.] to West Berlin without any hassle. There, I took the S-Bahn to Bahnhof Zoo, where I bought a ticket to Stuttgart for 102.00 DM, departure: 11:38, arrival in Stuttgart at 21:55. I then called my parents to tell them that I was on the way home.

Breakfast at MacDonalds. How decadent! [Shame on me, but after a full year in China, wasn’t that a venial transgression?]

Helped a Chinese guy buying a train ticket at Bahnhof Zoo. Now, at 11:30, I am sitting in an otherwise completely empty train carriage to Stuttgart. How strange! [considering the constantly overcrowded public transport in China…]

17:11 – Finally back in the West! There was only a passport control when entering the GDR [at the Polish border], but not when leaving the GDR. A Bavarian border official wanted to see my passport in Ludwigstadt, though.

Home, sweet home! Arrival in Stuttgart at 10 p.m. My parents were already waiting for me at the platform. At home, I found a new dog and a new cat, and all the parcels I had sent from Shanghai had arrived already. And my former landlady from Trier had called – telling me that she has a room for rent for me, when I go back to university.

This ends my year in China!


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Preface – Traveling in Tibet in 1988

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Introduction

From September 1987 to August 1988 I spent a year in China as a foreign student. I was 21 at that time and was studying Chinese at Shanghai’s Fudan University. During that year I had the opportunity to travel all around the country, from Shanghai to Kashgar, from Xiamen to Dali, from Hongkong to Beijing, and to many more destinations as well.

In May 1988, I was traveling to Xinjiang in the far West, on the border to Pakistan and Afghanistan, together with another German student from Fudan. Due to recent popular unrest in Tibet, Tibet was officially closed for foreigners. However in Turfan and Kashgar we met backpackers who had just been in Tibet, and who told us that there was one legal way to get to Lhasa, and once there, travelling was quite unrestricted.

The only legal and official way to get into Tibet, they told us, was renting a minibus from Golmud to Lhasa from the official Chinese tourism agency. Why not give it a try? On our way back from Xinjiang we stopped over in Dunhuang, and then took the public bus to Golmud.

It was in fact possible to take a minibus to Lhasa, and so I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in Tibet. From Lhasa I traveled to Xigaze and Gyangze, and back to Lhasa before returning to Shanghai via Xining. (Link: Route on Google Maps)

The slides I took during the time in Tibet may have almost „historic“ value today, more than 20 years later. I am quite sure that some of landscapes and buildings I was able to see then have now given way to a more „modern“ and supposedly better way of life. This is why I decided to have them digitized and to post some of them, with the date they were taken and the little background information I can still find in my diary from that time. I decided to post in English to reach a larger audience.

Before you expect too much: you will not find any really spectacular photographs – I never was a skilled photographer, and I was taking the pictures with a simple 35 mm rangefinder camera. Also, do not expect too much background information. I am not an expert on Tibet and Tibetan culture. Also, the diary entries have been translated without a lot of editing. They are the sometimes rather naive notes of an uncritical 21-year-old. I hope you will enjoy the pictures anyway, and I am looking forward to comments.

t00000
A Page from my 1987/88 Diary


Many thanks to Barry for copy-editing the English text.